figures and flames, beasts and me,
whatever it may catch...
It is possible there might
be moving a power right next to me
I believe in nights.”
“What do I ask of real writers, living and creating outside the bounds of my imagination? Simply that we who deal in fairy tales ought to believe in them.”
"...belief in fairies is certainly not the comforting thing J.M. Barrie pretended it was."
This last month, I spent part of book club making an impassioned, almost tearful argument against the treatment of conversion stories as unequivocal good. I mention this because the Enlightenment, at least in the popular narrative, is one giant conversion story after the standard fashion, which involves total rejection of former things: "First we were superstitious [and, some would add, religious]. Then we discovered science. Now we know that we are right and the medievals were wrong, and therefore science is all Good with a capital G and unverifiable belief is all sketchy if not stupid if not evil."
Thus saith the modern. And fantasy literature, or accepted fantastical or mythical elements in otherwise ordinary fiction, is ordered against the arrogance inherent in that conversion story, if not aspects of the Enlightenment itself.
Masha recommends we set ourselves to knowing and, where possible, believing in the auld ways:
Read Bulfinch's by all means but don’t start there, or end there. Listen to old tales, live the myths. Go out hunting the fern flower on St. John’s eve, bury statues in the yard, count crows, light candles, and feel the eyes of the unseen watching as you build them up with words. Don’t sacrifice dreams for responsibility and don’t attempt to confine your miracles to the written word. And don't write to escape the mundane, write to color it with the magic you see.She clarifies this in an earlier paragraph:
I don’t insist that we believe in everything we create, in the literal sense - or I would never write, too afraid I'd call up some malevolent being - but we should still believe in mysteries.Mr. Pond rejoined us with a few brief words this week, stating that "I’ve always felt that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of" and pointing us to a startling connection between a story he wrote and a real-life personage he'd never heard of. The story is intriguing, and I sympathize completely with the statement.
It's true, of course, that there are, and long have been, great fantasists who are atheists. While I've not read Martin or Pullman, the latter of whom is said to be very good except for letting his anti-religious sentiments get in the way, I've read Miéville and Pratchett, and they're both quite brilliant. But then, atheism, so long as it is not united to hard-core materialism, does not necessarily preclude an openness to mystery. Agnosticism certainly does not.
I do believe that a love of mystery and the supernatural are the seeds of good fantasy, generally if not universally. Love may not mean belief in, at least not superficially—but then, I can't really speak for the atheist. By nature or by grace, I am very, very religious, and while I sympathize with agnosticism, my tendency is toward a strongly spiritual uncertainty that would probably have ended up in vague New Ageism or neopaganism if it hadn't been for the tale of the Christ. Even superstition comes naturally to me, though it was vigorously stamped down by childhood Sunday School beliefs that damned nearly all of that sort of thing as demonic—an understanding that I have not quite learned either to accept wholly or to reject outright.
But the question here isn't my spiritual beliefs; it's whether a belief in mysteries is important to the inclusion of the fantastical in fiction. I believe in mysteries—starting with those called by the name sacrament, which comes from the Church's Latin translation for the Greek mysterion—and I buy into fantasy's loyalty to the Muses, its protest against the self-righteous Enlightenment rationalism that renounces its own mother for the sake of its ambitions. It doesn't follow that everyone does as I do. It does seem to me, speaking again from the outside, that even the atheists who choose fantasy do so out of the instinct for wonder, something I believe to be spiritual in nature.
"Don't write to escape the mundane, write to color it with the magic you see." So says Masha, and she speaks a long-unvoiced but deeply held motto of mine. There is a sort of magic all around me, in olive oil and prayers, in the sprinkling of holy water and in the words of consecration, in the ritual of a wedding, in the laying on of hands. There is magic in the work of art, in the creation of a child, in the curse of barrenness, in what Emily of New Moon called "the flash" of beauty, in the convergence of troubles. For me, fantasy provides an expression for those realities that tales of the everyday cannot.
Perhaps others do otherwise, and all the best to them. But to attempt fantasy with no love for mystery, for the vision beyond—I can't imagine why anyone would bother trying.